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Cold & Flu Guide

How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

by Amy Reiter on November 30, 2011 at 6:00 AM

coldYou wake up in the morning feeling like crud: Your throat hurts, your nose is runny, your muscles ache, and all you want to do is crawl back into bed, pull your covers over your head, and sink into a deep, deep sleep.

But how do you know if what you've got is a cold or the flu? Both are respiratory illnesses and share many symptoms, making them very difficult to tell apart, but the flu can sometimes lead to more serious complications, like pneumonia or bacterial infections, which can be dangerous.

Colds are usually milder than the flu. They come on slowly and may last less than a week -- though a really bad cold might settle in for longer. Early symptoms generally include a scratchy, sore throat and then a drippy nose, maybe some sneezing, eventually leading to a mild cough. Adults with colds usually don't run a fever, though young kids sometimes do.

The flu, on the other hand, often announces itself with a miserable headache and a dry cough. (A drippy nose and sore throat do sometimes occur with the flu, but less frequently than they do with a cold.) You'll feel achey and exhausted and may see the mercury rise as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit on your thermometer. You may feel better in a couple of days, or you may drag around feeling wiped out for weeks. On the bright side, while most people get a few colds a year, it's unusual to get the flu more than once annually.

A quick rundown of symptoms:

Colds: Rare in adults
Flu: May range between 100 degrees and 104 degrees Fahrenheit and last several days

Body aches
Colds: Occasional, but mild
Flu: Frequent, persistent, and sometimes intense

Colds: Occasional, but mild
Flu: May be intense, last for weeks

Sore/scratchy throat
Colds: Frequent
Flu: Occasional

Stuffy/drippy nose/sneezing
Colds: Frequent
Flu: Occasional

Colds: Occasional, mild, hacking
Flu: Frequent, dry, sometimes intense

Colds: Rare in adults
Flu: May come on suddenly; may be intense


Image via m.gifford/Flickr

Filed Under: cold & flu, general health, illness


  • lissa...


    November 30, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    I get a fever (99-102) with a cold....EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. Like, 5 or 6 times a year. I guess I'm one of those 'rare adults' that gets fever with a body hates me. 

  • casan...


    November 30, 2011 at 8:01 PM
    Vomiting and diarrhea are two major flu symptoms on top of everything else you listed. 90% of people who think they have the flu only have a really bad cold. The flu is like dying and it lasts 14 days. That's why I always get the flu shot now.
  • JHanc968


    November 30, 2011 at 10:54 PM

    Good info!

  • bether89


    November 30, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    Good information to know.

  • Amy
    -- Nonmember comment from


    November 30, 2011 at 11:23 PM
    casanderson1-You do not get diarrhea & vomiting from the flu. That is a stomach flu, which is completely different. The regular flu, which the flu shot prevents, is a respiratory condition. The flu shot will do nothing on protecting you from a stomach virus.
  • dresd...


    December 1, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    I have had the flu twice, and had it confirmed with a flu test both times. 

    The first time, I was feeling fine and taking out the trash.  Suddenly, I felt really bad. 

    The second time, I was working and feeling just fine.  I was taking a child's temperature, and suddenly I felt really bad.  I actually recognized the feeling the second time even though the first go around had been several years prior.

    I was out sick 8 days the first go around and 5 days the second.  It. Was. Awful. 

    From my experience...  If I can function, I might have a cold, not the flu.  If I can't get up, it is probably the flu.   


  • Jilly...


    December 1, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    Thankfully I have never had the flu and pray I never do.

  • Madel...


    December 1, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    Good to know

  • lalas...


    December 1, 2011 at 11:13 PM

    Thanks for the info!

  • jessi...


    December 2, 2011 at 8:52 AM

    Good ideas they are diffferent

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